Andra Jackson; 12/6/09
A journey that began almost a decade ago for Aladdin Sisalem, when he fled persecution in Kuwait in search of a safer place to call home, is finally over. With his hair newly cut for the occasion, the Kuwaiti-born Palestinian yesterday joined 42 other refugees and migrants at a ceremony in Melbourne to become Australian citizens. Mr Sisalem’s nightmare journey included being held for 18 months — 10 of them on his own — on a Pacific island detention centre, where he became known as “the forgotten man” of Australia’s immigration policy. There he might have remained, but for a rubbish pile that provided his salvation. Yesterday Mr Sisalem revealed for the first time the story behind the front page photograph in The Age that alerted the world to his plight in 2003.
Big White Lie – Chinese Australians in White Australia – John Fitzgerald; UNSW press; PP 31-33
Australian values and human values
While the vocabulary of this modern social and political revolution varied from one society to another it preserved a common concern for equality, fraternity and freedom wherever it surfaced.
New phrases were invented to characterise old hierarchical regimes as leviathans that made slaves or prisoners of men. Revolutionaries in France proclaimed the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their counterparts in the United States declared that all men were born free and equal.
Britons raised their tankards to the chorus of ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves Britons never never never will be slaves’.
Later still, cosmopolitan internationalists joined the chorus with ‘Arise ye workers from your slumbers / arise ye prisoners of want’.
These commonplace references to liberty and equality on the one hand, and to slaves or prisoners on the other, drew on the new ethical vocabulary of modernity to give expression to universal struggles for civic and human equality. In societies around the globe, public expressions of personal, civic and national grievance resorted to a common vocabulary of humiliation and oppression, resistance and liberation, equality and dignity, all of them grounded in the social imaginary of modernity.
The timing of Australian settlement
The establishment of a prison settlement in New South Wales happened to coincide with the rise of this new moral sensibility in England, which was alive to justice, equality, the presumption of innocence, the right to life and the ways in which particular customs and habits (such as adherence to mateship) could bind people together into ‘nations of men’.
Some of these notions were transported to Australia with convicted felons. One early sign of the new dispensation was the creation of a court of law, in preference to a military tribunal, to serve the first penal settlement.
Even convicts, as historian Alan Atkinson has observed, ‘were technically to be allowed the status of free men and women when they appeared before the court’.
Convicts came to Australia with what would later be termed inalienable human rights.
In an insightful discussion of the legal and ethical ‘dimensions of slavery and servitude at the time convicts were first consigned to New South Wales, Atkinson records the case of Somerset v. Stewart (1772) in which Lord Mansfield passed judgment on the relationship between race, slavery and immigration. Mansfield ruled that the Virginian slave James Somerset, who had entered England in the company of his master Charles Stewart, was within his rights in refusing to accompany Stewart to the West Indies as his master instructed.
Lawyers in the case argued at length about the common-law implications of customary English variants of slavery, including medieval villeinage, orphaned child apprentices, foot soldiers pressed into her majesty’s service and the growing prevalence of labour gangs made up of convicted felons.
But never in English law had slavery been applied explicitly to race. In all these cases bondage, and even forced transportation, might be imposed without consent,’ Lord Mansfield ruled. ‘But none of them seemed to apply to labouring men and who happened to be black. White convicts could be sent to New South Wales under conditions akin to slavery but James Somerset, a black slave, was entitled to enjoy his liberty in England.
A similar sense of what was right and just prevailed in the early Australian settlements, even to the point of retaining Mansfield’s sensitivity to race.
Nothing more galled native-born white Australians than the prospect that servitude and slavery might be perpetuated in the new south land. Even as Charles Harpur was penning his rhetorical question — ‘Shall the Monarchists condemn us / Into slavery and shame?’ — an influx of new chums from China was descending on the colonies. Harpur and his peers excoriated the new arrivals not because they ‘happened to be’ Chinese, as Lord Mansfield might have put it, but because they imagined that Chinese could not appreciate their own historical struggle with monarchy, tyranny and shame.
This self-consciously Australian struggle against servitude, Andrew Markus has pointed out, framed white Australian responses to Chinese immigration in the goldrush era.
The arrival of Chinese added an unwelcome complication to the local struggle against British tyranny.
So white Australians cannily adapted the verses of Rule Britannia to associate the ubiquitous Chinaman with slaves, in place of the more obvious association with their own convict ancestors. Instead of ‘Britons never never never will be slaves’, they roared ‘No more Chinamen allowed in New South Wales’. At the same time, the organised labour movement announced ‘We want no slave class amongst us.
Chinese had every reason to resent being branded as slaves, but they had no say in the matter once Chinese slavery became an axiom of Australian nationalism. The servile Chinaman served as an inverted template of the free and equal white man.